We went to Liverpool for TURNING FACT INSIDE OUT

1 Jul

Ten years on, FACT’s marriage of art and technology still shakes and stirs Frank Swain.

Thursday 13 June – Sunday 15 September
Information – +44 (0)151 707 4464. Bookings – +44 (0)871 902 5737. http://www.fact.co.uk

Ten years ago, FACT landed on Liverpool’s doorstep: a cavernous space of polished concrete dedicated to contemporary art and creative technology. I was a member throughout my years in the city, partly for the subsidised cinema tickets, partly because it was always a great place to go to explore new media. The first session I visited was to see thumb-bandit and technologist Aleks Krotoski speak about life in virtual worlds, Later a small group of us hit the nearby Russian restaurant for salted herring and kvass. The restaurant is long gone, but FACT survives and thrives: a font of extraordinary and prescient work.

To celebrate their tenth year, the gallery is turning itself inside out, pushing artwork quite literally into the public domain. The main hall is dominated by Steve Lambert’s huge carnival sign that declares in nickelodeon fonts: Capitalism works for me! A button allows visitors to register their agreement – or lack of – and the votes are tallied alongside the sign. When we arrive, the yays and nays are neck and neck. (I vote in agreement – despite my grievances with capitalism as a system, I can’t say I haven’t done well out of it.) Nearby, a video loop plays responses from citizens of Boston, explaining why they’re with or against the sign.

At the opposite end of the hall, Nina Edge’s Ten Intentions resembles an abandoned craft camp – a large canvas tepee surrounded by squat log stools. I discover later that the tent houses a transcription robot, diligently writing down whatever people murmur into its machine ear. The surrounding space – totemic of displacement and upheaval – is both a comment on the increasingly precarious living situation of people around the world, and a space to discuss the mechanical scribe.

John Craig Freeman and Scott Kildal’s EEG AR: Things We Have Lost steals the show. It’s visceral, emotionally powerful, and true to the ambitions of turning FACT inside out. As part of the project, the pair toured Liverpool to pose members of the public a simple question: what have you lost? The responses – heartwarming and heartbreaking – are looped into a video that jolts the heart. Caught off-guard by the question, people candidly admit their misfortunes and bereavements. “What have I lost?” a man with a thousand-yard stare quietly muses. “My self-respect. Yeah.” The lost objects were then replaced by creating virtual copies and placing them at the scene of the encounter. Using a smartphone with a custom augmented reality app, visitors can tour the streets of Liverpool to discover these lost objects floating in hyperspace. (Sadly, the future has left Blackberry devices behind, so I’m not able to join the egg hunt.)

The centrepiece of the exhibit is Fracking Futures by French duo HeHet. Having donned hard hats, we found Gallery 1 transformed into a Vulcan cellar, all smoke and infernal red light. Beyond the plastic construction-site ribbon, an elaborate model extractor worked hard to draw shale gas from the dirt-strewn gallery floor. Mechanical noises droned and boomed, and every so often the sculpture jumped into life, twisting bores, flashing lights, sending plumes of smoke and fire into the air, and discharging into a tailings pond the shape of a scallop shell (geddit?). It’s all very immersive, and impressive. Artist Heiko Hansen says that the sculpture refrains from making clear-cut judgements on the nature of shale gas extraction, a claim somewhat undermined by the Hadean atmosphere.

Unlike Lambert’s question about capitalism and Freeman/Kildal’s invitation to examine what we’ve lost, HeHe’s subject matter isn’t immediately accessible. The subject matter is timely, but I’m left wanting a way to engage more directly the subject matter. What dangers does fracking pose? Are the benefits worth the costs? And who stands to benefit from the technology?

There are many more exhibits included in FACT’s decadal celebration – too many to cover in a single post. If you possibly can, take the time to visit. Just be sure to switch your Blackberry for something more future-compliant when you do.

Also on the blog: Adam Roberts learns How to Make a Zombie.

Frank Swain goes digging “Beyond the city limits” in Arc 1.4: Forever alone drone, out now.

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